Many Egyptians continue to use several yearly calendars, the heritage of the country’s different religious traditions, writes Samia Abdennour
“The Egyptian calendar is certainly the only rational calendar that has ever been devised,” wrote the ancient Greek historian Herodotus after his visit to Egypt in the fifth century BCE.
The ancient Egyptians were one of the first nations to use a solar calendar, in around 3,000 BCE, and this shows their great regard for science and the high level of scientific knowledge they had attained. Their calendar was based on the phases of the River Nile and the associated activities in the fields of flooding, seedtime and harvesting, these making up three distinct seasons of four months each.
These seasons shaped the lives and character of the Egyptian fellaheen (peasants) who were so engrossed in agriculture and the land that they left all other matters — social, political and economic — to outsiders. It was this that facilitated the foreign control of the country and that led to the peasants’ eventual oppression.
Egyptians today use three calendars, the Islamic, Coptic and Western calendar, the last being used by people of both faiths for most secular or official purposes. The Islamic calendar is used only for religious purposes, while the Coptic calendar is used to mark the events of the Christian year and the agricultural almanac by farmers of both faiths.
The names given to the Islamic months were largely adopted from those of the jahiliya (the “time of ignorance” before the coming of Islam), while the names of the Coptic months are derived from the names of ancient Egyptian gods.
THE ISLAMIC CALENDAR: The origins of the Islamic calendar lie in the beginning of the fifth century CE with the Arabs of the jahiliya. The calendar is lunar, with the months being calculated according to the appearance of the new moon.
There are 12 months in the calendar, each varying from between 28 and 30 days and making up a total of 354 days. The months were originally named according to tribal needs and prevailing events, and when Islam came to the Arabian Peninsula the jahiliya calendar was not abandoned but was adopted by the new religion. These months move in relation to the solar year, and their names are still used up to the present.
The Islamic calendar, called the hijra (migration) calendar, started in 622 CE, the year that the Prophet Mohamed moved from Mecca to Medina, and it is identified by the abbreviation AH. Because this calendar is lunar and is eleven days shorter than the solar year, months and holidays appear to move within the Western calendar.
The months and the original meanings of their names are:
Muharram (forbidden). This is the first month of the lunar calendar. On 10 Muharram, Muslims celebrate Ashura (10th), which commemorates the death of the Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed.
Safar (departure). This was when people travelled away from the heat in search of food.
Rabee Al-Awwal (spring I) — when plants started to grow.
Rabee Al-Thani (spring II).
Jumada Al-Awwal (frozen I). This month originally fell in winter, when water, a rare and precious commodity in the desert, froze.
Jumada Al-Thani (frozen II).
Rajab (reverence). On 27 Rajab, Muslims celebrate the laylat al-isra’ wal-mi’raj (the night of the nocturnal journey and ascent). This commemorates the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, his ascent to the heavens, and then his return to Mecca, all in one single night and riding on al-buraq (a winged creature).
The rock from which the Prophet ascended to heaven in Jerusalem is now housed under the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest places in Islam. This month, together with the Dhul Qi’da, Dhul Hijja and Muharram, is one of the al-shohour al-haram (the months of prohibition) when war is prohibited.
Shaaban (dispersal). This was originally when people went looking for water. On 4 Shaaban, the Prophet Mohamed began preparations for Ramadan. On laylat nuss Shaaban (the night of mid-Shaaban), Muslims are encouraged to fast.
Ramadan (heat). During this month stones were said to become fiery from the heat. It is said of this month of daylight fasting that “when Ramadan comes, the gates of heaven open and the gates of hell close.” Ramadan is also said to be khayr min alf shahr (better than 1,000 months).
Notwithstanding its solemnity, this month is marked by gaiety and fraternity. The laylat al-qadr (the night of destiny), whose precise date is not known in advance but falls during the last ten days of Ramadan, is conventionally celebrated on the 27 of the month and commemorates the Prophet’s review of the entire Qur’an.
Shawwal (decrease). During this month, it is said that a camel’s milk decreases.
Dhul Qi’da (sitting down). This is one of the months when war is forbidden.
Dhul Hijja (pilgrimage). The pilgrimage to Mecca takes place during this month. A special dress of seamless white cloth called the ihram is worn by both sexes, and the rituals culminate on 10 Dhul Hijja with the Eid Al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice). Some boys born during the months of Shaaban, Ragab and Ramadan will be given these names as signs of devotion and gratitude for the birth of a boy.
THE COPTIC CALENDER: Year 1 of the Coptic calendar is 284 CE, the year that Diocletian became emperor in Rome, and it is identified by the abbreviation AM for Anno Martyrum (the year of the martyrs). Diocletian’s reign was noted for the torture and execution of Christians, especially in Egypt.
The Coptic year is divided into 13 months, 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month comprising five (or six if it is a leap year) intercalary days called nassi (forgotten) to complete the 365 days of the year.
The calendar is used by farmers of both faiths in their cycle of seeding and harvesting their crops. The peasants have attached an adage to every month that rhymes with its name and describes its character.
The names and adages for these months are:
Tut (from the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, the god of wisdom) starts on 11 September, and its adage is al-katkut yakul wa yemut, or the chick eats and dies, as during this month chicks were likely to fall sick and die. Nayrooz, or Coptic New Year, falls on 1 Tut, when the Nile starts to rise. It is interesting to note that although the rituals associated with this occasion are believed to be Pharaonic in origin, the appellation is Iranian and also means New Year.
Baba starts on 11 October. Its adage is udkhol wa iqfil al-bawaba — enter and close the gate, or go inside and keep out of the cold.
Hatur (from Hathor, the goddess of love and fertility) starts on 10 November. The adage is abul dahab al-mantour, or golden spread, meaning the wheat is ripe and golden in colour. The advent fasting period starts on 16 Hatur, or 25 November, and lasts until 7 January.
Kiyahk starts on 10 December, the adage being sabahak massaak, or your morning is your evening, describing the very short days. On 29 Kiyahk, or 7 January, Orthodox Copts celebrate Christmas, now an official holiday enjoyed by Egyptians of both faiths.
Tooba starts on 9 January, and the adage is tiseer al-sabiya karkuba, or the lass becomes a haggard hag, as young girls were thought to shrivel up like old women because of the cold weather. Coptic epiphany is on 11 Tooba, or 19 January. The end of this month is marked by strong winds called zaffit amshir, or the announcement of Amshir.
Amshir itself starts on 8 February, its adage being abul zaabib al-kitir (of many strong winds) or ti’ool lal zar seer seer (tell the plants to grow). At this time, new shoots start appearing. On 6 Amshir, or 13 February, Copts fast for three days in memory of Jonah who was swallowed by the whale in the biblical story.
During this month and the month that follows it, hot, humid winds laden with desert sand, called al-khamaseen (or 50, because they occur during these 50 days) are not uncommon. Visibility during this period is very poor, and even today some airports and harbours are forced to close down.
Baramhat starts on 8 March. The adage is rooh al-gheit wa haat (go to the fields and fetch): the crops are now ripe and ready for harvesting.
Barmuda starts on 10 April, the adage being duqo al-shaeer bil-amuda (pound the barley with the rod), or get working.
Bashams starts on 9 May. The adage is yiknis al-gheit kans, or sweep the fields clean. In other words, clear the land and allow it to rest before the new crop starts.
Baaouna starts on 8 June. The adage is la yindirib toob wa la yt’imil moona (neither bricks are formed nor mortar made). The excessive heat will affect even bricks and mortar.
Abeeb starts on 8 July. The adage is illi yakul mulukhiya fi Abib, yigib al-tabib (whoever eats mulukhiya during Abib must call the doctor). Mulukhiya, or Jew’s mallow, is a leafy vegetable very popular in Egypt. During this month it is still in its very early stage of growth and cannot be differentiated from harmful weeds, hence the adage.
Misra (the birth of the sun) starts on 7 August. The adage is tigri kull tir’a ‘asira (every dry canal is filled). During this period, floods once inundated the land, filling the dry canals. Orthodox Copts fast for 15 days beginning on 1 Misra in honour of the Virgin Mary, whose feast is on 15 Misra, or 22 August.